At the Eighth Annual Petite Sirah Symposium sponsored by and held at Concannon Vineyard this past August, I planted a couple of my friends at this industry only event.

Why? I felt that it’s important to get a handle on what the average consumer thinks of Petite Sirah. So, I conducted my experiment in the middle of some of the finest California wine experts. I knew a lot of it would and could be overwhelming, but I also knew much of it would be eye opening (for all of us), and then the impressions would come.

My plants were my high school friend Lonnie Corey and her husband Terry Byers. Lonnie and I both grew up in Lewiston, Maine. As coincidence would have it, she lives in the Marin area and I’m in Sonoma County. We’re less than an hour away from each other by car (with good traffic flow). Finding each other out here has been wonderful. She and Terry have been learning about Petite Sirah by hanging out with Jose and me, so I thought a fast track course could be really fascinating from their outsiders’ perspectives, and she could also provide me with some really outside-of-my realm concepts. And so, they were my plants.

I did introduce them, as everyone at the round-table discussions were saying who they were and where they came from. I knew that it would be really awkward for them as consumers, trying to explain how they were in the middle of all these growers, winemakers, and winery owners. Once everyone knew who they were and their function, the guards were let down and symposium went on as planned. Lonnie’s opinions should be carefully studied by anyone who produces Petite Sirah for what they’re marketing departments are or are not addressing.

[Q]  Lonnie, what were your first impressions?

[Lonnie Corey]

Amazing and brilliant!!!

Certainly a HUGE success. I wish I could have listened at every lunch table, because the conversations were so spirited (pun intended) and passionate; and oh my, so so wise and well-informed. I’m flattered to say we were “invited” to join Randle [Johnson], the winemaker at Artezin… and sat with Jim Concannon of Concannon Vineyard, Kent Rosenblum of Rock Wall (and other successes), Lynn Wallace (who does PR for Livermore Valley wineries), and another winemaker whose name I regretfully never got and couldn’t read.

I understand now why you laughed, when I suggested that Terry and I go to the library to brush up on current information to be better prepared for this Symposium. Like you said, “This will be better than going to the library.” These are the people in the front line who set the standards, live the life, and know the art and science in their hearts and minds. The library should be so lucky to have the knowledge we gained yesterday: distilled (again, pun intended), cogent, and shared generously with an audience that has so much respect for the industry and each other. Wow!

I took some notes from the consumer’s point of view. Feel free to toss, edit, use at your discretion. I’m only showing our gratitude for being included in this lofty event, plus letting you know they we were indeed paying attention!

Saying thank you is just too small in exchange for what we came away with.

[Q]  Do you have general observations as a consumer, first, about wine marketing in general?

[Lonnie]  In no particular order:

We drink white with hors d’oeuvres, and red with a meal; therefore food pairing is most important to us in our choice of red wine. As an aside, Concannon served a lovely Pinot Grigio at lunch. I noted the label details to buy some.

Which leads me to my next practice as a wine consumer:

We buy locally and enjoy having wines from a group of wineries that we’ve “checked out.” That means that we trust a label’s integrity and consistency. Generally, we discover a wine (more on that below), we visit the winery, taste, and buy.

My husband likes the point system, and as you said Jo, that may be the sports’ analogy like, tell me who’s winning this competition? whereas I’m a total shelf talker. If I’m not sure what to buy, you can win me over with your prose.

If in doubt, another option is to rely on the wine buyer’s advice. I’ve never declined their recommendation, even at Cost Plus. I don’t like the sea of bottles at Costco. Though they sell the highest volume of wine in the country I’m told, they’re not selling it to me. I shop at Woodland’s in Kentfield (very pricey but good suggestions when I’m fumbling for the right pairing), Mill Valley Market, and Safeway.

If you’re talking the “Millennials”, they’re buying from Safeway, at least if by Millennials, you mean my kids’ demographic – over 21 and under 30. Also, they’re always having one sale or another at Safeway, and that’s a good reason by itself.

[Q]  What about prices?

[Lonnie]  I don’t agree with the person who said, “Price doesn’t matter.” It does, at least to me, and more so to the Millennials. Our kids drink what we buy; they key off our choices, then they buy what they can afford. Still, they notice and save the info in their “database.” They may not be drinking a label for the more distinctive qualities of the wine, at least not yet. Let them get a bit older and wiser. Let them equate value with quality.

So, all this is to say that marketing to our demographic – boomers+ – is not a bad idea. For the long term, it requires educating your generational market and investing in building their knowledge and loyalty.

Here’s what happens with us and the people we love to go out to dinner with:

It’s hard to decide on a bottle when everyone is having something different, so often we end up choosing by the glass. I encounter wines I would otherwise miss if it weren’t for this opportunity.

[Q]  You talked a bit about the luncheon being the most informative part of the Symposium, how so?

[Lonnie]  I learned a lot at the luncheon about the difficulties of being on the “wine by the glass” list, that it’s not exactly democratic, shall we say, and that it may require additional education at the level of the waiter. Ouch! Way too much effort.

The lively discussion that ensued gave me a good understanding of the wineries’ perspective. And yet, should it be considered a “loss leader?” I suggested a short term marketing study, say three months, but someone else said they’d be willing to give it a year. This expanded to a question of markets: finer restaurants (easier to educate the Sommelier, wine staff, waiters?), hotels (chains like Four Seasons and perhaps their own incentive to do the in-house “Let me recommend a nice Petite Sirah to pair with your entree?”), and wine bars. Clearly this is a hot issue. Where, what and to whom?!

[Q]  What about the Symposium itself?

[Lonnie]  The biggest Aha! moment and most pleasant surprise for me was the wine judges’ presentations [Clark Smith]. It was so enlightening and so rewarding to know that they are judging region to region and not the best of everywhere [This was done at the Riverside Wine Competition with Petite Sirah in 2010, only, as an experiment].

This is responsible and reliable; recognizing the uniqueness of a terroir and noting that a particular label and variety that year is head and shoulders above its peers. Judging has its faults, and not everyone can pay to be in contention, especially for smaller wineries, but I was relieved to hear that the game has evolved to include the vagaries of a region that influence taste. The analogy to standards of a particular dog breed set by the American Kennel Club was perfect.

[Q]  What about the results of a competition or wine contest, do they mean anything to you? Some writers like to think they’re inconsequential.

[Lonnie]  We do love to read the SF Chronicle’s articles on who has won what in the wine biz. This is partly because I know the Food Desk has won awards for its reporting, so I trust them even if they’re only reporting the results of a contest. Contests give visibility and recognition. It doesn’t mean everything of course; there are many ways I as a consumer can discover a particular label.

[Q]  Is label recognition important to you?

Yes, it is important. Product placements. For example, I would never have discovered Artezin if they hadn’t submitted a well-thought-out package for the silent auction at “Dark and Delicious.” We bid on it because of its affiliation with Hess, a winery known to us, visited by us several times, with wines that never disappointed us. It contained three bottles and a tee shirt with the Artezin logo (fits me perfectly). The wine was fabulous and we are converts. What did we pay? Very close to retail value. Actually none of the silent auction items went for much less than their retail value, so who’s the winner here? Everyone.

[Left to right: Jeff Stai of Twisted Oak and Tyler Colman, Ph.D. a.k.a. Dr. Vino]

[Q]  What do you think it would take for Petite to become more mainstreamed? It was what Dr. Vino was addressing this issue as the key note speaker. What are your thoughts?

[Lonnie]  I told Kent Rosenblum that PS I Love You needs their own version of the movie Sideways, and that Kent’s story was compelling enough for him to dictate it to someone. The script will follow and then Petite Sirah will have its due.

Terry talked about the name Petite and how misleading that was, given the broad range of light to full-bodied nature of the variety.

My slogan would be, “Do you like full-bodied reds? Petite Sirah beats up Cabernet Sauvignon any day.”

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